Street vs. Conservatory Training
A commercial artist can be academically trained or be what is called “street trained” or a combination.
The choice of whether to pay for school training or not is similar for various artists– voice actors and musicians, for instance.
The career of voice actor and musician have always struck me as similar in many ways. Here’s a run down of the choices a budding musician faces and how it might play out in a music career. It’s not far off from the choices that face a young voice actor. You can substitute “musician” for “actor” and substitute an actor equivalent (“movie star” for “rock star,” etc.).
The path of an aspiring musician: Study or street?
The question of whether or not to get formal “conservatory” training as an actor is similar to the question of whether or not to get formal training as a musician. Either path offers certain advantages and disadvantages.
First off, you don’t necessarily need proper training to achieve success. Successful “star” music performers in the rock or blues tradition often have no formal music education at all. They never studied music, but rather learned their craft gradually, over many years– from books or (these days) the web, at gigs and from other musicians they met along the way. They learned on the job.
These “street trained” musicians may not be able to read sheet music but they know how to play what basically works and they excel at connecting with other musicians at a gig or in a band. They are also experts at connecting with an audience in a live setting. They have learned from the realities of “life on the road” and are good to navigate the ups and downs of this erratic lifestyle.
This kind of performer can be the best live performer and in some cases, the most successful financially with the best sense of “showmanship.” A lack of training (or regard for normal boundaries) can also result in a performer who is more experimental, innovative, or just “out there.”
The street trained musician may not be the most technically proficient player, they may have no idea what notes they are actually playing or why the notes fit together musically to the ear, and their solos may not be all that interesting musically. But in most scenarios related to rock and blues, none of that may be really relevant. Their artistic technique is only as good as the performance demands, but often, not more. If their playing were better, the audience probably wouldn’t even notice. There is often no apparent financial incentive for substantial musical “chops.”
Now let’s consider another route for a musician: music school. After paying for a few years of focused and intense study, the formally trained musician graduates with the musical understanding and “chops” to play and maybe even compose and arrange about anything, including more challenging stuff like jazz and classical. Their musical taste has probably aligned to more sophisticated music styles, with a greater connection to the history of their art and a richer palette to paint from when soloing or composing.
A conservatory trained musician can read music well. They know their instrument cold and understand why something sounds good and how to make something basic sound better. The technically “easier” rock and blues musical idioms are a piece of cake to play– maybe too easy to be of any interest anymore. This kind of studied technical control can be seen as liberating in that you are free to play anything as good or even better than the music requires.
Those of this world would also probably argue that a musician is freer and more able to express his or herself more fully with this kind of academic training. There is more creative power in this kind of studied knowledge, they might argue.
The downsides of music school? Well, music school can be very expensive, so the student graduates with substantial debt, for starters. Music training doesn’t necessarily translate into work that pays well, especially as a jazz or classical performer. A teaching career might be an option, but may not offer the kind of creative fulfillment or “fun” or lifestyle that originally drew the musician to the art. Formal music training can be an overly narrow education, focused only on the art and theory of music, rather than the real world issues and realities of building a thriving entrepreneurial career as a working artist. These practical considerations are of particular importance when the student emerges from their studies with substantial debt.
The graduate may be less open to or unaware of the variety of “less musically substantial” paths that might lead to satisfying creative opportunity or income. To top it off, the music school may well leave out a lot of practical education, e.g. how to connecting with a band, life on the road, connecting with an audience and an awareness of the variety of avenues a musician might explore while practicing their art while putting bread on the table.
Academic and street training are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though. Either can lead to a career as a star or as a supporting artist or session player. A performer can get both. Either can also lead to years of struggle that never really pay off.